For the first time in their storied history, Italy will contest back-to-back World Cup Finals. Maybe for the last time, too. If their recent poor performance reflects a bizarre game against North Macedonia, Jorginho missed the crucial penalty kick in the group they controlled, and four years ago, the disastrous reign of Giampiero Ventura, there is a bigger picture than just Italy’s ability to teeter between victory and disaster.
The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams. If the expansion were to lead to much greater representation of African and Asian units, the European delegation would rise from 13 to 16. There is an argument that in the 32-team World Cup, Europe had too many teams. Another thing they had is very little. For various reasons, both are true. Europe presented all four semi-finalists and six of the eight quarter-finalists in 2018. Thirteen of the last 16 semi-finalists have come from UEFA, which indicates, even taking into account the tendency of European parties to underperform The best on their own continent, to dominate.
The FIFA World Rankings are an inaccurate guide but nine of the top 11 European rankings are. So are 13 of the top 20, 16 of the top 27, and 21 – if Russia is included – of the top 37. All this indicates pressure on places which means there could be some notable absentees. The Netherlands finished third in 2014 and did not qualify for 2018. Nor did Wales, who reached the semi-finals at Euro 2016.
At what point is it perhaps important to include the caveat that Italy wasn’t even among the top 16 European teams in the qualifiers this time around: the three losers in the final, who would have enlarged the continent’s team to 16, are Ukraine and Sweden. and North Macedonia.
But it’s also worth considering a change the last time the World Cup grew. The last 24-team tournament was in 1994, and those 24 teams featured neither England nor France, who found ways to not qualify. In the era of 32 teams, the five economic powers of Western Europe – Germany, Spain, Italy, England and France – have always presented in a way that is sure to please FIFA’s accountants, whose perfect list of representatives will include the Big Five every four years.
But then Ventura’s failures were compounded by FIFA: they failed to sell broadcasting rights to the Italian market even after their 2017 playoff defeat to Sweden. Subsequently, the cheap purchase rights were acquired by Mediaset, which is said to have cost FIFA about $100 million. Meanwhile, US TV rights are notoriously lucrative, but they also missed out on the 2018 tournament. There was a romantic element to Panama stepping up in their stead, but the board may not have appreciated it.
The 48-sided competition offers greater insurance against repetition, and not just because the United States, as co-hosts, will not have to qualify for the 2026 edition.
But if there’s the financial aspect, to trying to protect the game from the World Cup that doesn’t feature the economic superpowers, there’s also a football team. The Italians are not alone among the notable absentees now: Mohamed Salah tops the list of missing stars and the play-off means that if he had been in Qatar, he would have been at the expense of Sadio Mane. As George Best can attest, the unqualified greats for the World Cup were an even bigger squad in the past. Moving from 16 countries to 24 to 32 countries has already reduced their number.
Wanting to have all the top players in the world can help strip much of the qualifying process out of the way.
Or perhaps Italy will continue to deliver after creating its own dynamic, winning Euro 2020 and the 2006 World Cup, alternating between boom and bust. Giorgio Chiellini had an 18-year international career, appearing in the final of two European Championships but not playing in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Euro 2020 winners may be a lost generation at the World Cup: Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile were all members of the 2014 youth team.
Jorginho, Leonardo Spinazzola, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Federico Bernadeschi and Alessandro Florenzi have not played in it, and age indicates that they may not play in 2026. For Nicolo Barilla and Federico Chiesa, one injury in four years could prove fatal. They may emerge as extreme players, outstanding players who have never played in a World Cup, with companionship from previous generations but not with future generations.
And so, instead of cheating his side for Qatar, Mancini faces England with a group led by the powerful player who will remain unfulfilled on the world stage, Leonardo Bonucci, but accompanied by future picks barely half his age, such as Wilfried Gonto. Bonucci called it “rebirth.” Mancini is building for the World Cup. Just not this.